There are lots of pretty places to eat in Manhattan. Tenpenny, in Midtown’s Gotham Hotel, isn’t one of them.
Tenpenny sits in the shadow of the old Bear Stearns building -- now occupied by JPMorgan. It feels less like a restaurant, more like an anonymous brick and wood pub that happens to serve food. But that food happens to be excellent.
A 10-course tasting menu is $125, so you can linger looking at the lobby. Fortunately, partner Jeffrey Tascarella also offers a 6-course “drunken tasting” paired with wine, cocktails, bourbon and beer. It costs $135.
“We aim to get people intoxicated. So far, we’re batting 1,000,” says Tascarella. Take him at his word -- though I adhered to a la carte cocktails and comestibles to maintain some sort of gustatory and cognitive sobriety.
So have a Madison, a Manhattan with root beer extract. It makes the mix of bourbon and vermouth taste like a fountain drink. It’s the correct pairing for the fast food-style burger.
A stack of greasy griddled patties -- spiked with pork fat -- sits between a soft potato roll and is served with tomato chips that provide an acidic tang without any watery mush.
The $15 burger is a gift to local bankers; a viable substitute to the lunchtime lines of Shake Shack. And where else but Tenpenny can one get a juicy, messy, fried egg and hot pepper-topped porchetta “banh mi” sandwich? Nowhere.
Stick around for dinner and grab a few pork belly tater tots -- sounds like bad sports stadium fare, right? Except it works; each bite has a slick of hard cider sauce that checks all the meat and potato extravagance with some much-needed mouth pucker.
This is the kind of place that would be declared the next Torrisi if it were located in a shiny Mulberry storefront. It’s not and probably accounts for why Tenpenny isn’t as full as it should be.
No matter. I’ll feast on the New American fare of chef Christopher Cipollone by myself. Just skip his pork rack. He overcooks it just like he used to at the now-closed Faustina.
“Spring Vegetables,” an appetizer, is one great salad.
A pile of favas, peas, wax beans, baby carrots and too many other ingredients to mention are offered raw, roasted, pickled, dehydrated and candied. The whole platter is then showered with powdered ranch dressing -- just to bring the whole French affair back down to summer picnic territory.
Eat pasta. Gnocchi collapse in the mouth. Squid ink spaghetti and smoky chorizo form a successful tag team to balance the sweetness of crab.
Bouillabaisse somehow improves upon its time-tested Marseillaise roots. No saffron here or standard aioli. Paprika and smoked fish stock bring shocking depth of flavor to “head on” prawns and sugar-sweet scallops. Ramp rouille adds its oniony punch. Finish with a dessert of custardy coconut Catalan and return tomorrow.
Desmond’s, which offers one of the best Dover soles in New York, sits opposite the loading docks at Bloomingdales, next to a pizza joint and diagonal from a lunchtime taco stand.
The ugliest block on the Upper East Side just got botoxed.
Send thank you notes to owner Richard O’Hagan. Expect 25 foot ceilings, a second floor terrace, ladies who wear lapel pins and men in khakis drinking rose. So Desmond’s isn’t for everyone. Rather, it’s a much needed alternative for those who frequent the nearby David Burke Townhouse or Le Caprice.
London-trained chef David Hart delivers soul-warming British-American fare. He takes pork belly and coats it in caramel, balancing sweet with salt, juxtaposing succulent meat with silky fat.
He contrasts the rich oil of poached salmon with the tart bite of curry vinaigrette. Lobster is deep-fried into an oceanic beer snack, though I suppose champagne would be a better choice in these aristocratic environs.
Sure, the wait staff might forget to pour the bubbly or they might spill some on your plate, nearly missing your mushy, forgettable caviar.
Chef Hart has a bad habit of making expensive items taste ordinary. Beef Wellington (with no foie gras) is a dry, overcooked filet mignon in a bready crust with a cloying sauce. The price starts at $100 (for two).
Skip the undercooked scallops and ho-hum cheese souffle. Order the $55 Dover sole, which dots every other table.
The queen of flatfish, often outdone by humbler, cheaper flounder, exerts her royal heritage here with panache. Hart tops the firm, flaky meat with butter and barely cooked shrimp. Perfect. Finish with carrot cake and enjoy the smell of expensive perfume around you.
Desmond’s Rating: * 1/2. Tenpenny Rating: ** 1/2
The Bloomberg Questions
Prices: Most everything’s under $30 at Tenpenny; Desmond’s
boasts pricier, $20-$100 entrees.
Sound Level: Around 70-75 at Desmond’s; a little louder at
Tenpenny when it’s full.
Date Place: Yes, for Desmond’s.
Inside Tip: Solid cocktails at Tenpenny.
Special Feature: Great pretzel rolls at Tenpenny; biscuits
Will I Be Back: Yes, to both.
Tenpenny is at 16 E 46th St. Information: +1-212-490-8300 or http://www.tenpennynyc.com/
Desmond’s is at 153 E 60th St. Information: +1-212-207-4949.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)